Awareness is a key skill that we train and practice in karatedō.
Zanshin 残心 [pronounced “z-ahh-n shin” ] is awareness – both awareness of the external and the internal. Zanshin is a kind of mindfulness that karateka cultivate inside and outside the dojo.
Literally, zanshin is “the remaining mind” – the mind that is present and fully aware, as opposed to part of our mind that is occupied. Zanshin is the mind that remains, when the rest of our mind (our consciousness) is occuped with something else.
Internal Awareness of Our Body
Inside our bodies, we “listen” to the state of our being, both mentally and physically. Zanshin is the fundamental basis for so much: with zanshin, we can center our spirit despite adversity; we can persevere despite the tiredness or soreness in our bodies.
But even more: with zanshin, we sense and understand how our body’s flexibility changes during stretching, and we adjust; we monitor the arc of our kicks, and improve their power.
During training, as we grow tired, zanshin tells us the extent and nature of our tiredness, and our fighting spirit then grows to move us forward, despite that tiredness.
And if we have an injury, zanshin helps us to understand the nature and extent of our injury. Our intuition about our bodies is a critical component of good health.
Zanshin is the first step in self-control – it acknowledges what is inside us. And armed with that knowledge, we can then move forward to shape, control, and direct our spirit or our body in the way that we wish.
Zanshin is also the first step in ren ma – constant improvement (read more about ren ma here). By understanding where we are currently positioned, we can move forward and improve that position incrementally.
Internal Awareness of Our Mind
As much as being aware of our bodies is important, awareness of our mind is even more important.
There are several key components that make up our "state of mind" – our emotional state, our level of focus and concentration, and the information ("the inputs") we put into our minds.
Our emotional state is under our control. This doesn't mean that we are always able to match our emotional state to what we desire it to be (we can no more match the performance of our body to what we want it to be). However, we can strive to do so, and we can practice controlling and managing our mental state.
The level of focus and attention that we have is also under our control, and as karateka, we also know that we can control that level of focus. And we know that we can choose when and how to deploy our strongest focus.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, zanshin also is important in making us aware of all the information and influences that enter our minds. An unfiltered mind is certainly one that has little zanshin – it is incumbent on us to curate what enters our mind.
The Environment Around Us
Outside of ourselves, zanshin makes us aware of our surroundings and the people around us. In a dark parking lot, we are aware of the footsteps in the shadows, despite our minds being full of the day’s work.
Environmental awareness isn't just about physical surroundings, however. Consider, for instance, that at home, zanshin demands we are aware of the feelings and state of mind of our loved ones, despite our attention being focused on other matters.
Awareness of our environment extends to everything in it, and its as key a part of zanshin as awareness of our own mind and body.
With zanshin, we move our bodies with authority and grace. We know where our hands are, in relation to the space around us. We don’t bump into objects, because our bodies sense their location, and we instinctively avoid them.
With zanshin, we manage our mental state, control our emotions, and carefully act as gatekeepers for everything that seeks entry into our consciousness.
And with zanshin, we are aware of our environment and our surroundings, including the people in our lives.
Zanshin is awareness in all things, and zanshin is one of the hallmarks of a true karateka. We strive to polish our zanshin in the dojo, and to practice it throughout every aspect of our lives.
Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei in San Rafael, California on 6 February 2012, and then again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 17 May 2023.